Aujourd'hui (Today) 5/5
Aujourd'hui is a sometimes entrancing film about a man who wakes up knowing that it will be his last day alive. His family and friends in his town in Senegal also know, as the movie informs us at the beginning that this is a place “where death still warns of its passing.” This advance knowledge isn't treated as something mystical or supernatural—simply as another fact of life. The movie makes the premise work by addressing it on a basic emotional level; what would you do with your last day, who would you talk to and what would you tell them, what would others tell you? These are not original questions, and the film doesn't attempt to render them profound with any sentimental or formal techniques—it simply observes as the man goes through this last day, including everything from a traditional final gathering where his family relates all the things they remember about him to one last brief encounter with a former lover.
The man is portrayed as somewhat of a mystery by Saul Williams, who through very little dialogue and incredible expressiveness in his face and mannerisms, presents a character simply coming to terms with all he will miss. There is an incredible shot with Williams standing in an empty courtyard after he arrives late for a party held for him by the city council, plastic cups and chairs scattered around, and one gets the impression that the man arrived late for his whole life. There is brief talk throughout the film about how he once went to the U.S. to study, but returned home prematurely, and this seems to stand in for the character's lack of commitment to everything in his world. Some shots of him returning home through a solitary landscape and a surprising surreal flourish at the end make the story extraordinarily memorable, even as nothing really happens throughout. This is one to seek out.
Shorts: Out of This World Program
Short films are difficult to review as most people will never have access to them unless through a festival or if they get nominated for an Oscar and play in a limited theatrical release sometime prior to the awards ceremony. I've tried below to briefly tease what each short entails and use them to comment on what the short form in film often does (or doesn't do) so well.
The Voorman Problem (3/5) – Since they require less investment on the part of an audience, short films can often get away with acting as nothing more than a clever extended joke leading to a punchline, as with this story of a psychiatrist (Martin Freeman) seeing a prison inmate who has convinced himself and all the other prisoners that he is a god who created the world 9 days ago.
Foxes (5/5) – Foxes presents an Irish suburban couple whose marriage tension sets the stage for a series of bizarre events that follow the appearance of foxes in their backyard one night. Incredibly effective if somewhat silly, this plays like someone packed all the menace of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist into one of David Lynch's deceptively picturesque suburban settings, and it acts as a great example of how well-mastered tone and formal techniques can work to great and memorable effect even when layered over the most basic skeleton of a story.
43,000 Feet (2/5) – I've seen short films that seem like test runs for feature-length versions, but the very brief 43,000 Feet has the feeling of a film envisioned at full-length only to find itself at a deficit of ideas. Composed of the sort of free-associative narration of a man falling from a plane in his moments before he hits the ground, this one demonstrated very well how a little can go a long way.
The Route 43 Miracle (5/5) – Combining awkward humor, a bit of magical realism, and surprisingly effective sentimental touches, the filmmaking behind The Route 43 Miracle is so assured that it can get away with telling an unexpectedly touching story by combining some standard cliches with its original elements. Because of the short form, we fill in the blanks that we'd normally require a feature to do for us, resulting in what is essentially a strange version of the “distant parent reconnecting with their child” story told in Cliffs Notes form.
The Centrifuge Brain Project (4/5) – This mockumentary is a great example of how short films can take a type of overindulgence in a joke that wouldn't hold up at feature length and deliver it in just the right amount. Following the efforts of a group of scientists to test the effects of exceedingly ridiculous (and eventually impossible without the help of hilarious special effects) amusement park rides that subject the human brain to extreme gravitational forces, this is like a Christopher Guest film turned to 11.
Voice Over (3/5) – Prescribes to the punchline rule by having a narrator jump back and forth between three distinct stories in which “you” are the main and only character, correcting himself repeatedly until finally arriving at the fourth and “correct” story, which contextualizes all the others in a cute and funny way. Yet another example of a narrative device that could yield disastrous consequences in a feature-length film, but which works in a short because of the amount of investment required.
The Twin (5/5) – A story about a diver who finds a tiny, bearded version of himself hiding in his throat one day, who he eventually coughs up and raises as a child. The Twin is both quietly hilarious and kind of poignant, working as a mixed metaphor both for how parents try to form their children in their own image as well as how one regards changes in themselves over time. This is one of those rare shorts that feels like a feature, sacrificing nothing in terms of plot or character development because it strips its story down to only the most essential interactions, and then presents them with nuance and complexity.